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Protection of civilians in military operations

In the framework of the Eagle Eye series, on 12th October 2022 the HQ NATO Rapid Deployable Corps (NRDC-ITA) hosted a conceptual seminar focusing on the Human Security (HS) approach and the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in military operations in relation to all three of NATO’s Core tasks.

NATO’s commitment to safeguarding the freedom and security of its members has driven the Alliance for over 70 years. During these decades, challenges to the shared security of Allies – and the contexts in which NATO addresses these challenges – have evolved. It is increasingly the case that challenges to security occur and must be addressed in spaces inseparable from civilian populations. In the modern security environment, civilians are being deliberately targeted in conflict and their safety and security is being leveraged to serve military objectives; this has become clearer with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

The armed conflict in Ukraine and the atrocities caused by Russia’s aggression have given renewed impetus for NATO to address HS. The notion of HS directly links NATO’s common values of individual liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law to NATO practices. A HS approach provides a heightened understanding of conflict and crisis. This allows NATO to develop a more comprehensive view of the human environment, consequently enhancing operational effectiveness and contributing to lasting peace and security.


For the first time the 2022 Strategic Concept emphasized the key importance of HS and subsequently it was endorsed by the Operation Policy Committee on 24 June 2022.1 The Human Security approach is an umbrella concept allowing for the coordinated and concerted further implementation of Cross Cutting Topics (CCTs).

To date, at NATO, six CCTs – Children And Armed Conflict (CAAC), Cultural Property Protection (CPP), Building Integrity (Bl) and Protection of Civilians (PoC), preventing and responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV), Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (CTHB) – have been included in Human Security in Operations (HSIO). Other international organizations, particularly the UN, take a different approach and sometimes a much broader view of what Human Security encompasses or how the topics relate to each other. The UN conceptualized Human Security as a multi-sectoral approach to security that identifies and addresses widespread and crosscutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of people.

According to the NATO definition2,PoC3includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimize and mitigate the negative effects that might arise from NATO and NATO-led military operations on the civilian population and, when applicable, to protect civilians from conflict-related physical violence or threats of physical violence by other actors, including through the establishment of a safe and secure environment.

  1. PO (2022)0280.
  2. PO(2016)0407.
  3. Not only persons, but also objects and services.


Mr. Marco GRANDI1 was the moderator for a series of notable speakers including representatives from ICRC, the University of Turin, SHAPE J9 and the Office for Legal Affairs, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Defense of Latvia, and the AFRICOM Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the Military.

Contemporary perspectives were explored using the approaches adopted by both academics and practitioners in order to understand the challenges of PoC in different scenarios and, more importantly, so that people can understand the actions and next steps. The speakers outlined the challenges faced when military operations are conducted in a complex, modern operating environment with large numbers of civilians in conflicts and perpetrators who attack them, and how NATO could prepare and respond. Military means, although essential, are not enough on their own to meet the many complex challenges to the security of own forces and the civil population. The NATO Comprehensive Approach requires commanders and staff to be clear about their mission, the objectives they seek and to analyze the human factors of the operating environment that are relevant to the achievement of these objectives. Synchronizing military and non-military activities is a key.

In particular:

  • Prof. Stefano RUZZA from Turin University addressed the historical evolution of Human Security and Democracy from post-WW2 to Ukraine;
  • OF-1 Ivana Kudlackova from the SHAPE Office of Legal Affairs focused on the Legal Aspects of the Protection of Civilians in the Context of the Cyber Domain;
  • Ms. Marianna Tonutti, Stabilization Advisor from SHAPE J9 introduced the new NATO approach of Human Ssecurity in Operations (HSIO concept);
  • Ms. Maryna Domushkina, a humanitarian activist from Ukraine showed a dramatic video on the physical consequences that Ukrainians are facing due to conflict, with grave implications for human rights, including economic and social rights;
  • Ms. Baiba Bļodniece, Parliamentary Secretary of the Latvian Ministry of Defense gave a stimulating lesson on how the Baltic States are preparing for the Russian threat, in terms of Civil Preparedness and Comprehensive national defense;
  • Mr. Chris Hall, Head of Delegation - ICRC Delegation to NATO and the EU and the Kingdom of Belgium, explained how ICRC understands the PoC concept and why Commanders have to look at the “trilemma triangle model” to balance the use of force with the obligation to protect civilians and the aim to accomplish the mission;
  • Ms. Elizabeth K Blanchford, Humanitarian Advisor to USAFRICOM illustrated the US Interagency Approach to PoC and the implications of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP);
  • Lt. Gen (ret) Christopher Coates, Senior Director, Single Synthetic Environments (SSEs), Military Applications at CAE Inc. gave a demonstration of the use of SSEs to facilitate improved operational HQ response to a specific Protection of Civilians challenge;
  • Col. Valts Āboliņš, NRDC-ITA ACOS J9 explained how NRDC-ITA is pioneering the Human Security approach and PoC within the NFS through the J9 Human Security Implementation Plan, which also includes the PAN HQ SOP on the operationalization of Human Security and PoC.

  1.  He is Military Advisors of the Dutch INGO “PAX for Peace” and is specialized in the design and delivery of tailored PoC training solutions for security actors in support of multiple NATO Force Structure Corps HQs.


PoC has to be continuously assessed as centric when we scan the human environment and as the main area of concern to address the Human Security approach.  Integrating PoC into the Operations Planning Process will ensure this topic is properly considered in the various planning phases and allow NATO Commanders to make informed decisions. Such endeavors will require resolute cross-functional effort and military planners, supported by Subject Matter Experts, should integrate PoC into the various phases of the planning process.

We need to develop a practical understanding among non-military and military actors of the role of NATO as a protection actor in operations, missions, and exercises. We should consider the NATO approach to PoC as an evolutionary one, taking steps toward the goal of protecting civilians, while being open to adapting its approach in partnership with key stakeholders. PoC encompasses a broad set of challenges that military forces cannot address on their own. Humanitarian protection agencies have considerable expertise that NATO can leverage. Sustained engagement and interaction with local communities, national authorities, and international actors is a fundamental requirement for success

Story by Colonel Valts ABOLINS - LVA Army – NRDC-ITA


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